Ernest Peterson has spent his entire adult life in Washington, D.C. — almost all of it in Shaw, a neighborhood of colorful row houses and tree-lined side streets about 2 miles from the White House. In Shaw, Peterson bought his first house and started a business. And, for 20 years, on the Saturday before Labor Day, he organized a community picnic at the elementary school near his house. Over the years, friends and neighbors moved away or got locked up. He lost touch with many of them.
But despite living in Shaw for nearly 40 years, Peterson is increasingly starting to feel like an outsider in his neighborhood.
“I go outside, and these people who been here for 15 minutes look at me like, ‘Why you here?’ That’s that sense of privilege they bring wherever they go,” he said in his front yard on a sunny Saturday in November. “I been here since ’78. They been here six months or a year, and they question my purpose for being here.”
In a city facing some of the most intense pressure on housing in the country, the feeling is not uncommon for many of Washington’s longtime residents.
Even neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of poverty and crime — places once thought immune to the influx of newcomers — are being eyed by developers.
At Brookland Manor, a housing development in northeast Washington home to about 1,200 mostly low-income residents, the landlord has stepped up evictions of poor tenants as the owners prepare to redevelop the property for young professionals, often filing lawsuits for late rent payments totaling less than $100.
In neighborhoods south of the Anacostia River, so far largely left out of the district’s housing boom, activists are fighting to preserve low-income housing as developers anticipate a growing appetite for market-rate units.
But for Shaw, a neighborhood where newcomers began arriving more than a decade ago, gentrification is not a new reality.
Now, several years into a period of dizzying demographic and physical change, longtime residents say they are still trying to negotiate a place for themselves in a neighborhood they’ve long called home.
Home on P Street
In some ways, Ernest Peterson’s stretch of P Street looks a lot like it did when he came to Shaw in the 1970s after moving from North Carolina to attend law school at Howard University. The same two historic churches hug corners at either end of the street. The elementary school is a charter now, but the facade has remained mostly unchanged.
Carlos Pyatt grew up across the street from where Peterson lives. Pyatt hadn’t been back to this block since he moved away in the early ’80s.
When Pyatt looks back at his childhood on P Street, he remembers riding skateboards and bicycles, playing touch football and tag.
The woman who still lives next door to Pyatt’s old house, now in her mid-60s, remembers a less rosy picture — a period after the neighborhood’s heyday as a center for African-American culture and commerce, when Shaw was still reeling from the effects of the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and, later, the rise of crack cocaine.
“I left before the epidemic hit,” Pyatt said, surveying his old house for the first time in three decades. “I had no idea that was going on. To me, it feels the same, but the people who haven’t left, they’ve seen it.”
Pyatt’s old next door neighbor bought her house for $42,000 in 1981. In 2017, the property’s tax assessment was more than $888,000. The city’s assessment of her home jumped nearly $150,000 in the past year. Developers call her up constantly asking if she wants to sell. Even with all that equity, it can be hard to keep up with the property taxes on a fixed income, which makes the option to sell tempting. Many have taken the offers.
Alex Padro represents Shaw on the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, and cites this trend as proof that longtime residents benefit from the community’s growth.
“They decided to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime wealth creation opportunity and sold their family homes and moved to the suburbs,” he said. “Grandpa and Grandma were no longer having to climb up several flights of stairs and they have a college fund for the grandkids.”
While exploding home prices can generate windfalls for longtime owners who decide to sell, the upward direction of the housing market has also generated concerns about the availability of affordable housing in neighborhoods like Shaw. Even if longtime homeowners or renters aren’t displaced, the trend certainly constricts who is able to move in.
Despite initiatives to preserve housing for low- and middle-income residents, census data from the neighborhood points to a period of major demographic change.
In 1980, Shaw was 78 percent black. In 2010, the black population in the neighborhood had dropped to 44 percent. And that’s not just because more white people moved in, increasing the overall total population and driving down the neighborhood’s black majority. The actual number of black residents, not just their percentage of the population, has been consistently dropping over the past two decades as well.
Home sales also illustrate what’s happening. In 1995, the median home price in Shaw was $147,000. Today it’s $781,000. In 1979, the average family income was $50,089 when adjusted for inflation. Between 2010 and 2014 it was $145,096.
Curtis Smith, administrator at the historic Third Street Baptist Church down the street, said very few of his congregants still live in the neighborhood. Most commute in from the suburbs or elsewhere in the District.
“In the old days, maybe 80 percent could walk to the church,” he said. “Now just turn that around.”
Shifts like this one have meant that institutions such as churches preserve some of the few remaining ties drawing former residents back to the community. Smith hopes his church can serve as a centerpiece of the community, not just as a relic of the past.
“We’re trying to portray that we’re not the Black church on the corner, but we’re the community church,” he said.
Though every now and then someone who’s not a longtime congregant will stop in for the free community movie nights or public forums on topics like neighborhood policing, it’s not often. Smith said that’s something churches throughout Shaw are grappling with — how to play a role in a community that looks less and less like their membership.
A few blocks away, the owner of Hollywood Styles Barbershop is thinking through a similar set of questions. For decades, the shop has occupied this small brick storefront just off Seventh Street, a stretch of Shaw that typifies much of the change here. Convenience stores and Ethiopian takeout joints housed in beat-up storefronts carry on next door to upscale coffee shops, bakeries and bars.
Shop owner DeLonta Dickerson said barbershops are some of the few remaining businesses from the old Shaw.
Like churches, barbershops can remain a link to the neighborhood long after people move away. The chrome and vinyl chairs lined up on each side of the small space have seated generations of the same families. Dickerson started coming here as a kid, and took over the business in 2009 when the shop’s longtime owner died.
Over the years, Dickerson has seen new condos rise on every corner and a subway station crop up across the street. He leases his storefront, and while he figures the owner could sell out to a developer one day, he doesn’t think about it much: “I’m not sure if I’d go for another space, or if it’s something that I’d just want to leave behind.”
For those longtime residents who remember Shaw as a riot-scarred neighborhood pockmarked with empty lots and plagued by crime, rather than the hub of African-American commercial and cultural activity experienced by the generation before them, at least some of the improved resources and services such as lighting, a new library and a renovated recreation center are welcome changes.
Dominic Moulden, who has been organizing residents in Shaw for 30 years and represents the tenants rights organization OneDC, said that doesn’t mean everyone benefits from the new amenities.
“If you can’t spend $100 to eat, $5 or $7 for coffee, you can’t buy anything in your own neighborhood,” he said.
Peterson puts it this way: poor African-Americans in Shaw had been asking for improved services for years, and it’s only now that white people with money and influence have moved in that they’re getting them.
Resources are available now not because of who lives in Shaw, said ANC Commissioner Padro, but because the city’s tax base improved significantly over the past decade. As more people move into the city, its coffers are in a better position to fund new amenities and services.
While the tax base may be in a different position than it was just a decade ago, Moulden said the city is still failing to meet the most basic needs of some residents, particularly when it comes to housing.
A 2015 analysis of census data by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute found that the number of apartments with rents less than $800 per month — a number that represents 40 percent of monthly income for a family of four living at the poverty line — decreased by 42 percent between 2002 and 2013. That’s a decline of more than 24,000 units.
Padro says public strategy sessions, extensive committee work and community surveys have all been employed to bring everybody into the fold when big decisions are made.
Virginia Lee, who is in her late 60s and has lived in Shaw for 17 years, says she still feels longtime residents have lost some political clout, especially when it comes to leverage at ANC meetings. She says African-Americans became less visible at meetings and she began to feel that her input wouldn’t be taken seriously.
“It’s a sense that I have as a black woman, that my voice has low impact,” Lee said.
One week before Thanksgiving, dozens of school-age kids lined up in front of a stretch of long folding tables as volunteers heaped their paper plates with green beans, turkey and mashed potatoes.
Three of the round banquet tables are crowded with older residents.
Harold Valentine is one of them. He moved to Washington in 1981 from Boston, where he struggled to kick a drinking problem. He hasn’t had a drink since he moved to D.C.
Valentine said this kind of event wouldn’t have happened a couple of years ago — at least not here at Kennedy. And the senior citizens? They would never have crossed the street at night to come to Kennedy.
Valentine said this is a prime example of both the kind of positive change he’s seen spring up in Shaw — and of the distance still left to go.
Seated inside a quiet preschool classroom just off the recreation center’s front lobby, Valentine cites the programs that now occur here day and night, his pride for the former gang leader he mentored at Kennedy and who now serves as a member of the recreation center’s board — all proof, he says, that positive changes really are happening in Shaw.
Valentine also wants the recreation center to be a gathering place for the whole community, though he realizes that dream is not entirely the reality yet. He’s not exactly sure how to get there, but said his idea for where to start is rooted in an old saying a pastor once told him.
“I wouldn’t go across the street for another program, but I’d go around the world for a relationship,” he said.
That’s precisely what Valentine thinks Shaw needs. He’s optimistic about the progress, and says he’s not trying to argue that improving life here won’t also require tangibles such as regulations, programs and money. What he’s saying is there has to be something more.
For as much good as Valentine sees happening in his neighborhood, he recognizes there are real lapses when it comes to how people from different backgrounds interact with each other. The neighborhood’s changing demographics have created a space where identities such as race, age and class are constantly brushing up against each other. It’s a tension Shaw is still dealing with years after “gentrification” began.
“Until I sit down and talk to you, we’re not going to get anywhere,” he said. “I can say good morning to you, but unless I sit down and say, ‘Where are you from?’ until I let you into my comfort zone and you’re not afraid of what happened once upon a time here in Shaw, there’s not going to be that cultural assimilation.”
Derek Hyra, an associate professor at American University who has studied gentrification in Shaw, sees building bridges as at least partly a question of policy.
Hyra suggests refining the Community Development Block Grant — federal funding allocated to cities each year for community development work, which fund projects such as affordable housing, but can also go toward improvements like sidewalks or parking. He’d like to see some of that money support community gardens, arts programs or festivals — or whatever mutual interest the community identifies.
Peterson wonders if, in the long run, that will really matter. Even if longtime residents are able to stay in their homes, he wonders what the community will look like once his generation begins to die out.
“I see very few people who look like me that will be here in the next five or 10 years,” he said.
“You can’t stop progress”
Peterson wrestles with the nuance of the shifts he has seen in Shaw. That’s because he came here 40 years ago for many of the same reasons that people move in today.
“You can’t stop progress,” he said. “I understand because we left, a lot of us black folks, in [the] ’30s, ’40s, and ’50, we left small towns to come to urban centers seeking employment. Same thing is happening now. There’s nothing in these small towns for these kids anymore.”
That doesn’t mean he grants newcomers a free pass.
Those conflicting feelings and experiences have left many lifers trying to reconcile the optimism they have for their neighborhood’s future with the pain inflicted by cultural or political alienation. For those whom the displacement hasn’t been physical, there is still a sense they have been somehow removed or pushed aside amid the tide of newcomers, or that there isn’t the sense of community there once was.
“You sometimes get the effect that nothing existed here before they came,” said Virginia Lee. “All the goodness that has come with the gentrification and certainly the refurbishing and preserving of buildings … all that has come has been material in nature and very little has been done to preserve the human aspect of a city that’s being transformed. We have our gathering spots, they have their gathering spots. The fact that we use the same sidewalks and streets has very little to do with ongoing communication.”
When Valentine talks about the future he envisions in Shaw, he repeatedly uses words like integration and reconciliation — the act of making different beliefs compatible. He sees the process as both grand — such as his idea for a “reconciliation square” designed to unite neighboring churches — and rooted in the day-to-day, like the relationships he builds with people at the recreation center.
That’s where Lee thinks it will start.
“Every day when I go out my door, I go out and figure just speaking to people who pass by is a way of inserting some humanity in the process,” she said.
The type of grand “reconciliation” Valentine talks about may not be possible. But many longtime residents of Shaw say they are confident any progress — in the integration of public spaces, in preserving cultural institutions, in crafting policies that preserve affordable housing and prevent displacement — will also require something that has often proved elusive here: a little bit of empathy.